Tolerance, Ethics and Conjoined Twins

On CBC radio’s The Current this morning, Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed a doctor who was responsible for the multiple surgeries that separated conjoined twins at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. 00000The story was mostly concerned with the ethical implications of the surgery, as well as some details about the family involved. The parents had twin girls who were born joined at the pelvis and abdomen and had elected for surgery to avert the nearly inevitable circumstance in which one of the girls—the weaker one who was subject to illness—died while still attached. The subsequent load of toxins would soon overwhelm the other sister and kill her.

Although the surgery might prove to be fatal to both girls, and quite likely would kill the weaker one, the family—in consultation with a medical team, ethicists at the hospital, and their clergy—decided to go ahead with the procedure. They accepted the risks of the procedure since they might lose both girls if they remained conjoined. The surgery proved to be fatal to the weaker twin, since she could not live without the other. Scans before surgery showed that her weak heart was heavily dependent on a massive artery that went from her healthier twin to her heart. Once that artery was cut, she succumbed with ten minutes.

The background of the story was interesting enough, and I was as drawn to the medical information surrounding the procedure as anyone, but one relatively minor aspect of the story drew my attention in particular. The family came from a rural village where their superstitious neighbours were considerably worked up about the birth of the twins. The girls were not seen as unfortunate victims a genetic accident, but rather as a harbinger of evil. In their Christian village the 00000family was shunned, and the girls—on the rare occasions that the parents took the babies outside—had rocks thrown at them. The family feared for their lives, the safety of their children, and both their social and professional lives were considerably disrupted by their neighbours’ reaction.

I understand this part of the story well enough. In a world of ignorance, their likely uneducated and superstitious neighbours readily found a mythological explanation for the occurrence. Although they might have taken another route to their differential treatment, like the conjoined children born in India who are viewed as lucky, their profound intellectual privation no doubt fueled their extreme prejudice. Their reaction might be seen to be understandable on this level, for if they believe in the ineffable then the magic of the twin’s birth might well affect them, much as a cat puking up a hairball can predict a surge in the international stock market. Once reasoning is thrown aside, then anything becomes possible.

The part that becomes harder to understand is their neighbours’ subsequent application of mythology to the family’s attempt to ameliorate the girls’ situation. The family sought a medical alternative to the daughters’ care, and that also proved to be a problem for their superstitious fellow villagers. Their “reasoning,” if I may use the word so loosely, was that god had created the children in that form and it was up for the parents to accept god’s superior judgement. The villagers’ reasons for throwing rocks at the children becomes difficult to understand once they have made that claim, however. Were they intentionally stoning god’s work, and either forgetting that aspect of their own reasoning or enacting parts of the bible that encourage rock throwing as a punishment for a host of crimes, working on Sunday, adultery, and wearing mixed fabric.

If we accept the premise—that god created the children, or allowed them to be born conjoined—then it follows that their birth state would have his explicit consent. Presumably he would have some grand reason to cause such misery. Perhaps god was testing the family’s resolve, 00000and they are merely a modern version of Job who was tormented so god could prove to satan that Job’s love was real.

The part that becomes difficult to comprehend is how their reasoning follows from that initial flawed and unsubstantiated premise. Even if they presume that god did such a thing to the unfortunate children, it does not follow that the neighbours would be able to predict god’s reasoning. Perhaps their god knew the family was too sedentary, and this was the only way he could imagine getting them to move away from their home village of superstitious fools. If his project was forcing change upon a resistant family then he might well have tinkered cruelly with the girls and thus lead them on a path toward what he wanted.

The villagers not only presume god is behind the children’s medical condition, but that they know better what god might intend than the god to whom they ascribe the action. If god is responsible for the accident of birth, then why are they throwing rocks? Do the villagers believe that their god had the children born so that they would have someone to lob rocks at? If god is responsible for the children’s situation, why do the villagers despise a family who has furnished such palpable proof of god’s existence and malicious involvement in the lives of his most helpless subjects?

Once they have thrown their rocks—and they still believe the children’s circumstance is due to god’s interference and therefore should not be medically tinkered with—how do they know god’s intentions so well that they know the doctors should stay away? Do they avoid all doctors, since the same reasoning would apply to anyone? Does anyone in the village 0000wear spectacles without fear of a stoning, since they are circumventing god’s divine plan for their partial blindness?

The story declined to report on the family’s home country, let alone village, in order to protect the remaining relatives in the village. If the neighbours get wind of the children’s surgery, and that god’s divine plan of irate and violent villagers has somehow been evaded, then the family fears the neighbours may attack their relatives. They have no faith that god can take care of his own vengeance, even given a bible that offers a plenitude of proof the contrary, but they feel that they need to supplement his possibly delayed judgement day with a divine village lynching.

The true gods in the village are the neighbours, for they have determined the accident of birth is divine, they have ascribed a punishment they think suitable, they have set the limits on what can be done to improve the children’s life, and they have decided to punish any who do not follow their commandments.  Certainly they are the worthy inheritors of the cruel god of the Old and New Testament, for they invent reasoning on the spot, assign punishments as cruel as the initial deformity, and then demand that the girls stay in the fallen state so that they have someone to torment.

One of the reasons that modern humans have rejected such superstitious claims as those of religions is situations like these. Since the villagers have chosen to act as they will and merely use any god they can get their hands on as an excuse, there is no reasoning with them. The family had no choice but to escape, and even if they miss their homicidal and intolerant neighbours, they cannot go back for fear of their lives. They will still consult with their clergy, who are largely responsible for this type of intolerance, but in other ways the human species will continue to drag the decaying retinue of the mindless village into the future. Although their beliefs are harmless enough when they don’t deicide to inflict them on others, they are easily turned from a plowshare to a sword.

Once reasoning has been set aside, once we have decided that evidence is not important when judging the world around us, then we open ourselves to the ravening beast of such cultural artifacts. If the villagers were amendable to reason, then the family could have asked them to consider that they are attacking—according to their own beliefs—god’s children. If revulsion still overcame their emotive control and they still wanted to throw rocks, they might have been reminded that the same type of medical interventions they take advantage of might work with the children. If their eyeglasses proved to be within the line of god’s treatments when major surgery was not, then they might have been asked what the hapless family might be expected to do.

The empathy we would like to expect from our fellow humans should make up the shortfall of their reasoning, but once poisonous ideas help to shore up visceral antipathy, and reasoning has been subsumed under mythology and madness, we are left no recourse but to leave. Many people around the world no doubt applaud the family and feel for their twin’s circumstance, and mercifully those who are all too eager to cast stones are largely confined to small communities and we may hope in the future their mental weaknesses disappear entirely.

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Living in the City: Boxes

Although he would at times forget the scampering and rustling that marked people amongst the monoliths, like the worms in a graveyard or rats in a sinking ship, at moments he would look up to see the lit windows of a thousand tiny00000 lives, made small by the distance down the boulevard, and smaller still in apartments which didn’t allow them to expand into anything more than an infestation. It was then that he recognized that although the buildings bore the parasites with the stoicism that comes with the knowledge of extermination, the people lived their moment on sufferance and it would take more than the cost of their rent to give them back the open skies and unfenced vacant lots.

Compartmentalized from the moment they slipped from the womb, they fell from one rigid box to another, their uneasy path littered with the castoff shells of past occupancy, of the jerk and fall that was being tipped out of the soft womb. From that soothing roundness, they fell into the barred walls of the cradle, 00000and occasionally a hang reached from the sky and tilted it alarmingly back and forth. The cradle led to a small room housing a bed and other boxes, and they were meant to stay there for a half dozen years or so until they graduated to school. Education, they had to learn quickly, was a system for boxing, a long conveyer belt that led the00000 still-soft mind to desk to room to larger room and back again. Viewed from the outside, a privilege the child was afforded briefly as they stepped from the bus, the school was built from a giant’s play, the unsteady blocks leaning on one another until a hand reached down to sweep them to the floor.

After school they found a job somewhere amongst the huge warehouses and skyscrapers that dwarfed them and their concerns. Along another conveyor00000 they would build boxes with their roughening hands until the hollering boss would lean out over the fence that protected him from his worker and pull the cord which announced they could eat or, later in the day, go home. By this time they would have found one of the tiny apartments and if their evenings were not too tired, or when the weekend mornings found them fresh enough, they would work on conceiving another baby for the boxes.

When Tom imagined an entire system built to serve square walls and the tiny insects that lived in the cracks 00000and amongst the insulation of buildings that endured their presence, he always saw himself as though from above, or a long distance, a miniscule crooked figure angled away from the street and pacing the confines of a tiny room. He thought about how he’d been brought up in the open air, and had come like a million others, drawn to the city like a moth to a candle on a windowsill, his eyes wide with the wonder of humans living in droves, great open-mouthed hordes rushing to and fro with the commuter traffic day, and collapsing in exhaustion at night.

He acknowledged that the buildings were not alien constructions, that they had been designed and erected by those who thought about making money from their00000 fellow humans, but that took away none of the horror of living in the midst of the roiling crowds, and the feeling of scurrying on the bottom of a pit. There were those who cried foul and left, to end their days rubbing their limbs against the rough bark of the forest trees and grubbing in the dirt for food, but many more treasured a fantasy of themselves above the common run, that far above the anthill they would one day be able to look down, their fellow hurrying back and forth far below, and they would be able to parade their success and escape before others who thought to dream their way out of the shared nightmare.

Those people became flint-eyed in their quest of the higher box, and they hammered nails into their feet so they might easier climb the backs of their fellow sufferers. They earned their place in the sky, their view from far above the toiling multitudes, but they gained it by way of malice and betrayal, it came at the expense of their better selves, and even when they were as high as they could get, the penthouses on the tallest buildings, their eyes only looked down. They had pinned so many hopes on bettering themselves at the expense of others that they had forgotten about the sky.

Even the lowest worker in the subbasement terror of their daily existence had the occasional beam of sunlight bounce off a glass-sheathed building and into their face. On their weekends they might play accordion along the high wall in which people had confined the river, and for a moment be more than an ant waiting for a magnifying glass. 0000The penthousers had no such release. Even once they pried their bloody shoes from their feet, their necks were so twisted from their climb that they could no longer look up, and they only found pleasure, their fingers scrabbling on the paper in front of them, in the numbers which traced their success against the losses of the many who had failed.

A vast machine for the grinding of human hamburger, the cities could kill a dream more easily than a man steps on a cockroach, but Tom assured himself that he 00000knew the story and could therefore evade its most likely outcomes. Somehow there was a middle ground, a vacant lot where kids pried away the fence and kicked a ball above the dust, and he was more determined to find it now that he was old enough to realize it existed. The many cracks and mouse holes meant there were others who had survived a different way, and he was determined to find out their stories, although in the meantime he would be scrabbling in the streets like the rest of them.

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Preface to my Novel about Colonizing Mars

I first thought about the lone colonist of Mars by the chance association between two very different and, some would say, antithetical ideas. I designed a university course on the changing perception of Mars in literature over the past two centuries at nearly the same time as active projects to take people to Mars were finding their footing. As well, I realized when I was looking through the information on the planet online, that some deluded people thought the planet was already inhabited, although they could not explain their reasoning at all cogently.

In preparation for the course, I read 00000about Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan, which seeks to place humans on the surface of the planet within a few years, and the more recent Mars One team’s scheme to televise the adventures of the colonists they claim will be in place in 2025. I was especially interested in the Mars One’s idea of one-way colonization. This makes much more scientific sense than Mars Society’s bypass venture whose only purpose is to grab some rocks and return, although it is also much more challenging in terms of engineering and human resourcefulness. While looking through the photos from the Mars rovers, I began to understand that 00000while I was excited about recent scientific advances, there were others online who were both distrustful of authority and extremely gullible.

One of the most profound examples of this paranoid naiveté are the people who pore over the latest NASA rover images looking for evidence of life. NASA is accustomed to people like the flat-Earthers claiming that their photographic evidence is manufactured and that their findings about the burgeoning carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere are 00000false. But more recently, as they post their pictures, there are people who expand the view in order to find what NASA has missed. Some of these people are determined to both prove NASA wrong and to be the first people to discover life on Mars. Accordingly, they scour the pictures of the surface looking for geological anomalies, familiar shapes, and more significantly, living beings.

These armchair investigators’   000003  use of pictures leads them to cite hard-to-interpret bulges in the landscape or angular rocks which resemble familiar shapes as evidence. When they are asked for something more substantial, they immediately reply with conjecture, cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, and 000010pixelated photos. They argue for the significance of dozens of photographic anomalies, arguably the most famous of which is probably the hill on Mars which they claimed resembled a human face.

My reader may remember the Face on Mars controversy that so bruised the public attention that even NASA felt compelled—to counter claims of a cover-up—to00000 change the orbit of one of their craft for a second look. Their audience showed so much more interest in the face than they ever had NASA’s legitimate science, that when public statements advised it was merely an artifact of the light and play of shadow, the gullible public accused NASA of hiding the truth. For the armchair investigators on Earth, this was proof positive that Mars is or had been inhabited, although they offered little explanation for the family resemblance between Martians and humans.

Another famous image that has diverted attention from real science is that of a curiously-shaped rock outcropping that looks like a human figure. 000020For the “investigators,” it can be taken to be evidence of “a woman waiting for a bus on Mars.” Although some people come to laugh on the Reddit pages where such debates find a fertile ground of poor education coupled with profound ignorance, there are so many who take the picture seriously that the joke falls flat.

I was entranced by the bland naiveté of the comments below articles where good-intentioned people would undermine such conjecture by reference to the woman’s relative size. They pointed to other photos from different angles—for a similar analysis was the undoing of the Face on Mars. One person with more of a science background vainly tried to explain that the woman could not exist because Mars possesses one percent of Earth’s air pressure. They were attacked by others who claimed the people could be using suits, like scuba gear, and still others sailed further offshore with their argument that their god could have given them an atmosphere or had them live without it. In the face of such blind assurance, scientific verifiability is as helpless as a fish on the shore, but there are lungfish. Like those tidal creatures, I began to wonder if I might be able to get some use out of conspiracy crowd’s profound ignorance.

Once I realized that these people who were arguing back and forth about the possibilities on the basis of such slim evidence were not merely trolling, I decided to place a colonist on Mars. In the absence of living beings on Mars, and in an internet environment which included so much blind faith, I decided to pretend that my colonist was sending regular reports from the surface. I used the latest pictures from the00000 Opportunity and Spirit rovers, as well as what is known about the planet, and invented the difficulties that surrounded his attempt to survive such a harsh environment. He was never meant to be a spokesperson for Earthly environmental concerns, or to make pithy statements about managing the resources on a planet that the readers might take to heart. He was merely verbal flypaper, using thin watery honey to attract the flies who are drawn to nonsense.

I set him up on BlogSpot, gave him a name, and watched as he dutifully wrote his daily, and by times weekly, blog entry from the red planet. Unfortunately, for my experiment, few were drawn to my bald-faced tomfoolery, and no one stepped forward to claim that NASA was lying about a colonist while a simple google search proved his existence. I collected a few serious followers who were perhaps excited by the creative project, such as a NASA scientist who specialized in ionization in the upper atmosphere, but in those early days of Mars online, my struggling colonist attracted little attention.

Perhaps because I was spending so much time making sure my colonist was encountering a real Martian environment and designing a course about how Mars has been written, I began to think more about the red planet. Within a year I was working on a novel about fifteen colonists and before long I turned back to the original inspiration and found my lone00000 colonist’s story compelling in its own right. Perhaps because I was intent on making it appear both evocative and scientifically accurate, I had to imagine the life of a person millions of kilometres from Earth who was living with the knowledge that their food was running out and that rescue was not a possibility.

The ignorance of humanity, combined with our willingness to seek out knowledge, continues to be an inspiration to me. Although the first colonist on Mars is still to come—at least outside the pages of this book—it is a testament to the various space agencies around the world that we know as much as we do about Mars, and it is a testament to our own intransigence that we know so little.

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Yard Sale Culture

Sometimes he felt as though he’d wandered into a world where everyone’s life had been spilled out like a gut-shot man, as if their sentiment and possessions were stacked in boxes at a planet-wide yard sale. He thought of what his life would resemble, all the liquor bottles having not quite made it to the recycle bin taunting him from a college sophomore’s top shelf. 000003There would be wedding rings and pawnshop promises scattered to the horizon and the only thing that would save him from crippling humiliation would be the millions of other displays that were the tragic comic lives of everyone else.

It was yardsale day off the main road, and he’d wandered into it by mistake, his shoes scuffed by the uneven sidewalk and unfriendly curbs. The time periods were easy enough to tell by the owner’s crushed faces, even if the metal toys and spray on window-frost were not a giveaway. He pretended an interest he didn’t feel, thinking only about escaping, as if the highway lay on the other side of a million compartmentalized lives. He avoiding meeting anyone’s eyes, 000020letting his fingers drift over vinyl albums from the fifties, yellow piles of National Geographic and rumpled piles of children’s clothes.

If he were to buy, he knew he would have to buy the lot, and then, staggering, he would go back to his car carrying the most meaningful part of their life. He would bring the hasty decisions and regrets, the petty triumphs and Walmart-greeter lives back to his own apartment and there they would fester until they invaded his own life. He would find his hobbies taken over by half-finished needlepoint and he would have to buy cigars to feed the cigar cutter he had no real use for.

He gave up on the debris from their broken lives and began to watch the people who would have nothing to do with their sales. They were a mixed group. 000003Children with tear-streaked faces watched their favoirite toys bought for pocket change, dolls they had embraced through nights too terrible to recall grasped by the greedy hand of their parent’s avarice and then thrown into the gaping maw of the cement truck appreciation of a child as unlike them as a winter day is like a dandelion. There were mothers who watched people paw over the shirt their baby had been wearing when he first walked, heard them bargain with the husband from where she stood on the step, taking that precious memory for twenty cents and almost dropping it as they gathered their armful of what might as well be stolen goods. Some fathers saw tools that they had never used but had been worn by their father’s hands disappear into plastic bags and the thanks that accompanied the crumpled bills suddenly corrupted their past with cheap tinsel and twisted fir of a Christmas tree kept long past the point it had browned into dry rot.

He needed to retrace his steps. Behind him, somewhere beyond the trinkets and toys, the ties and piles of granny squares that would have been an afghan if 000003grandma had lived long enough, somewhere behind plastic furniture and chipboard discount lives, his car waited, its engine impatient for the road. He threaded his feet, placing them sideways amongst the boxes and spilled contents of tables in order to avoid stepping on the goods he might suddenly owe someone a quarter for, but the piles were oddly similar. He’d seen purpled hands grasping bulging bags, as their new owners—little knowing that their new goods were more dangerous than poison or weaponized fertilizer—carried them to their own homes. Hundreds of pounds of clothing and differently shaped plastic junk had been swallowed but he now realized the supply was endless.

The tables still creaked under the burden of twenty, forty, sixty years of living, and boxes were still overflowing with free or bargain marked down and cheap books and magazines and screwdrivers and old coffee mugs with slogans on the side. He suddenly realized that beneath each normal-looking home was a vast pit into which they had been throwing off-the-rack trash for generations. The bottomless pile that represented the human wish to cover their despair and fear with junk would mean the yard sale could last for years. Some children would be conceived in old copies of Playboy and months later born amongst the maternity wear. They would grow up on top of boxes of toys and play cryptic games under tablecloths while 000003others shopped. If their parents’ determination to clear out their cornucopia of a house continued, the kids might range wider into other yard sales, swapping out goods so that the great swirl of garbage that was the suburban crescents and bays could feed itself, chewing up its own children in order to greed-satisfy their parents. They would grow older amongst the teen novels and pellet guns, pawing over the clothes that were old styles come new again, until they were ready to take up professions. Then they would be into the books, a DIY series competing with physics and chemistry textbooks and literary works in perfect condition. They would eventually take their own part in the parade that was humanity pushing more and more garbage into its own mouth. Some of them would never leave the permanent yard sale that was their neighbourhood, and instead would suckle their children on the endless consumer cycle.

Once the full horror of what he’d stumbled into came to him, Tom almost ran back to his car, ignoring the supplicating arms that held out a shirt and a tie, a monkey wrench and plaster Elvis. He pushed past hands like they were branches in an animate and malign forest, and stomped plastic containers and spilled record compilations as he ran. Once he was in the car, he drove above the city for the first time in a month, and there, high in the hills, he looked down through the brown smear that 000003belted the horizon with smog, and thought about the whirlpool he had barely escaped. Beyond the city was the Pacific, and in its centre swirled the great Pacific garbage patch. He’d never seen it, but he felt he knew more about it now that he’d noticed the permanent yard sale that was the lives of his neighbours. Like the patch, they circulated the trash until it broke down into its component parts, and then they drank the viscous slurry like energy drinks, ingesting enough plastic to get them through another day.

It was dark when he drove below the smog line back into the city. The piles of clothing would still be on tables and the late night obsessed would be running fingers through rayon and pinching vinyl, but amongst the 000003clutter tired children would rest, their sticky hands still clutching toys and their mouths automatically chewing on the corner of a curtain or the remains of a pleather purse. He turned away from the sight, although he knew he would be haunted by porcelain dogs and glass figurines whenever he visited a friend’s home.

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What Hump?

In a short but provocative exchange between Doctor Frankenstein and Igor in Mel Brooks’ 1974 parody Young Frankenstein, Igor makes a profound statement about our lack of self knowledge. The doctor asks him if he wishes to consider a surgical alternative to the hump on his back, but Igor, with a gleam in his eye that acknowledges that the doctor will not continue the questioning, asks what hump?

00000Every time I have thought about this scene, with Igor’s oblivious obstinacy, his utter unwillingness to admit the truth about his physical deformity, I was always reminded of that aspect of the human condition which makes us unable, or unwilling to admit our foibles and concerns.

Although we point to our ability to recognize ourselves in the mirror with great glee, as if that accomplishment incontrovertibly sets us apart from the other animals, we are most exercised when we try to probe our own motivations and concerns. We often claim that we understand what we want, can explain what we do, and are not mystified when we stymie our own aims, but in fact stepping aside from the only perspective our life offers us is more difficult than we pretend.

One of the most pernicious aspects of mental illness, for example, is the inability to recognize it, even if the person who suffers from mental illness can acknowledge their plight. My friend told me about her friend who refused medication because “it messed with his mind.” She expressed her dismay by telling me, “He needs his mind messed with.” Even if the person with mental illness can admit their situation, they somehow avoid using that most salient information to evaluate their own behaviour and ideation.

There are a few techniques we can use 00000to force us to acknowledge another point of view. When we were young someone probably told us that we needed to walk in another’s shoes, and that advice holds even though we are theoretically more mature when we are older.

We should evaluate all of our behaviour from this outside perspective. As we examine each of our choices and statements as if another were to do the same, we can get that sense of dislocation that we need to aim for. If you have ever watched a beloved movie with a friend who didn’t care for it, you have already had an inkling of the power of perspective. Because humans are social animals we automatically place ourselves in the subject position of our peers, 00000even if that position conflicts with our opinion or values. When our friend tells us the narrative choices in our favourite film are weak, we can either argue with them and thus learn nothing from this valuable moment, or we can look with fresh eyes at what has been hidden by our enjoyment. If the film is worthy of our accolades then it can endure some criticism. If our enjoyment is based in fond unshared memories, or other emotional tags, then we can learn to evaluate our own likes more clearly.

In our life, we need to learn to evoke this same dislocating critical eye. We can do that by imagining another were making the same statements, or imagine that our audience were another person whose opinion we possibly value more. If the statement is true, then we should be able to make it before our best friend, our parents, and our lover. If the action we 00000have just preformed, such as a petty crime can be explained in a way that salves our conscience, then how well does it fare against the evaluative process of the court.

I have a friend who evades all of this responsibility for his actions by trying to ensure that no one knows anything about him. He has a deep-seated social anxiety, he tells me, and therefore worries that no one will like him if they knew his real self that he keeps hidden. His answer to this is not to make sure both his public self and hidden self are 00000worthy of approbation, but rather he merely keeps his depredations secret. He has no fear of engaging in quite reprehensible actions, as long as no one finds out. His fear that people will not like him once they get to know the real him, is quite valid. He engages in quite unsettling behaviour morally, and yet that does not trouble him in the least since no one is privy to his actions.

When he is found out, he suffers all of the agony of the socially fearful, but when I look at his situation I merely ask why he doesn’t change his behaviour. We all have secrets that we’d rather people not know, shabby furtive things we have done or thought, but social anxiety is unimaginably worse when your secrets point out that you make little effort to act in a moral fashion.

When a friend’s child was in the bathroom next to the kitchen when they were discussing his lack of attention to his schoolwork he was listening attentively. One phrase they used excited him enough to burst from the bathroom with demands and expostulations. One parent said to another, “Maybe it’s time we got Ritalin.” If you have never heard the name of the drug, and you were a child listening through a bathroom door, you might hear something quite different. The child heard, “Maybe it’s time we got rid-of-him.”

When I heard this story my first reaction was to laugh with the parents as they described how they placated his fears, but upon reflection I realized an odd aspect of the child’s behaviour. He burst from the bathroom demanding that they don’t get rid of him. For me, that defined a way of thinking. He did not quietly listen for more information that he might use to ensure they kept him. He didn’t reconsider how lazy he had been with his schoolwork or even ask what they meant. Instead, he was sure of what he had heard and he leapt straight to demands. He never considered that his behaviour was the 00000problem they were discussing and therefore needed to be modified. He was fine, in his own mind. Instead he wanted to modify their behaviour. “What hump?” he came out yelling.

Another friend was treating me to a four day diatribe about her ex-boyfriends, complete will all of the shades of meaning that she attached to each of their interactions, when I began to notice a pattern. In every story, she would mention 00000how angry she was, or how mad that made her. We were walking when I made this observation, and perhaps I hoped that she would therefore rethink her interactions with others. Instead, she merely replied flippantly, “Didn’t you know I have anger issues?”

The gay tone of her voice belied her statement, although I had ample evidence to indicate that her anger issues were rampant, but I wondered why—if she understood that to be a flaw in herself—she did not apply that to her own life. Shouldn’t those anger issues inform her interactions with her boyfriends and help to explain why simple conversations might go awry? Instead, she was both blind to her own hump and was able to use it as a ready excuse, all the while keeping her anger intact and justified.

If we have a hump it behooves us to recognize it. We do not need to belabour it in public, we need not parade it before others, but we should recognize that having a hump will affect our ability to buy a fitted suit off the rack. And even in approaching a tailor, we might want to realize that it is our hump that drives us to the professionals. That is not the tailor’s fault, or that of anyone else.

Another technique we can employ is to examine our motivations in the same way we would another. The reactions of our peers are a clue. If they are taken aback by something we have said, we should re-examine why we are saying it. Are we angry when making the statement, or influenced by alcohol, drugs, hunger, or exhaustion? Like a baby who has not had enough sleep, we can get cranky without knowing what it means or whose fault it is. My good friend was quite annoyed recently and at one point she said, “Why are you being so irritating today?” I suspected that the answer—that she was tired and had a bad day—would have little currency until she was more rested, but I was surprised that it didn’t occur to her.

It is not easy to carry a hump, but at least if our issues are in the open we can point to them as we strive to go beyond their limitations. When Igor asks the question, Doctor Frankenstein merely looks to one side and then abruptly changes the topic. Likewise, with our secret hump, we are left with pretending it does not exist, lying about its effect, or going through our life oblivious and unconcerned, while around us others bend and sway and modify themselves so as not to discommode a hump we refuse to specify.

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The Flat Earth Experience

In his The Time Machine Weena tries to throw herself in the fire because she has never seen flames before. 00000She doesn’t know that it will burn her and that she should exercise care. She is a figure of profound ignorance in the novel, but she is the one I turn to when I try to understand the mind of the person who believes in the conspiracy theory that people around the world—from Eratosthenes onward—are lying about it being a sphere.

In order to focus our examination we will have to set aside those who did not so much make up their mind but had it make up for them by their religion. 00000The antecedents of their particular disorder are easy to trace and they would have to upset the entire applecart of their world view if they are to go against their belief system. Their defensiveness makes a kind of sense, in a rather depressing psychological fashion.

The Flat Earthers I am concerned about are more those who have decided—based presumably on the certainty of their limited senses and the paranoid concern that the world is filled with those who lie easily and well—that the world is not a globe but rather a flat dish with a sun shining 00000on it from above like a spotlight. This is the mentality that I want to get inside. Or perhaps I should say, peer beneath.

The original flat earth societies were more about proving the bible true and scientific verities false, but there was one lone voice which approached the question differently. The Flat Earth Society of Canada which was established on November 8, 1970 by philosopher Leo Ferrari, writer Raymond Fraser, and poet Alden Nowlan was an intellectual exercise. They were more interested in encouraging people to rely on the evidence of their senses instead of the received wisdom of education, and in that way they ran directly counter to the modern flat earth societies who have returned to the older and semi-successful project of undermining reasoning.00000

Non-religious belief in a flat earth is difficult to follow, although we can understand it emotionally. Their educational background is presumably limited, so they find many of the proofs of the spherical earth hopelessly obscure. They might think about the position of the stars depending on where you are on the surface of the globe, especially Polaris, as a form of evidence that the earth is a sphere, although that would engage their possibly atrophied spatial thinking. Foucault’s Pendulum demands the knowledge of how a pendulum might work on a rotating earth, and thus would strain their already well exercised incredulity. The disappearance of a ship going below the horizon is a much more straightforward test, although it is dependent on 00000understanding it is the effect of the earth’s curvature, instead of merely believing that every ship sinks once it leaves port.

They might try Eratosthenes’ experiment which took two vertical lines in different cities, drawn using a plumb, upright by the force of gravity, and looked to the shadow they cast. If the earth were flat the sun at noon would be directly overhead00000 for both, and because it is not, that is proof positive that the earth is a sphere. They might view the curve of the horizon out an airplane window, wonder as to why the other planets are round, the existence and meaning of time zones, why our gravity is consistent from one place on the globe to another. In short, they have a dozen different ways they might be able to supplement their educational deficit.

I am less concerned with their reluctance to engage in rather simple tests of their beliefs; I am more than accustomed to the very human refusal to admit a logical basis to an idea they hold to be true. I am much more interested in what the world looks like to these people. What do they think when they see the nearly ubiquitous images of the spherical earth?

I wrote a hard science fiction novel called Flat Earth and although I didn’t think much about flat earther’s at the time, and the book is not about the conspiracy ideas, I am occasionally surprised by people stumbling onto my website where I describe the book. I am quite explicit in its description, for I do not want anyone to feel duped or put upon, but I wonder at those who think they are going to find a book-length proof of their firmly held beliefs only to be disappointed yet again.

Instead, and this is the viewpoint I wonder about, the flat earther is surrounded by images in which the earth is a sphere. They are inundated by maps and globes in their school classroom, 00000Google Earth on their computer, artist conceptions of the solar system, the frequent tweets from the international space station, and Sagan’s pale blue dot. In fact, there are so many images that run counter to their chosen reactionary view that I wonder that they manage to cling to it so tenaciously. To do so points to more than ordinary recalcitrance. For every one image on a spoof site declaiming the medieval peasant’s view of the flat earth, there are millions of photographs of the actual earth proving it is a sphere. For every planetarium and orrery there are none which purport to show how an unusually shaped flat earth might fit amongst the planets.

For the flat earther the world must seem to be under a vast delusion, and they alone—and a few of their compatriots online—possess the truth. They must feel hemmed in on every side, that millions had been spent on educational models, doctoring 00000photos, faking nineteenth century explorer’s privations, merely to confuse the gullible. They never mention what the many millions of people who engage in the conspiracy earn from their quite difficult ruse, and I can only imagine that the flat earther compares the complicated plot involving world governments and many thousands of scientists to the schadenfreude sought by online trolls. The flat earther must feel that fun is being had at their expense and they are not invited to the party.

Such a person would feel profoundly isolated before the advent of the internet. But now they may find others who suffer from the same dislocation of idea, the same paranoid delusions, and therefore their sense of self receives a small underserved boost. Now they can point to several people world wide who share their view, and for them that vastly outweighs the cornucopia of evidence to the contrary, just like an unfounded claim on a 00000website about optical illusions forcing ships below the horizon outweighs a real test that they could easily perform. They accept at face value the statement made by a website they could have designed better themselves, but put off the trip to the beach with the telescope to see if the claim is true.

Their main feature is a kind of stubbornness, similar to the religious believer. They think that what is thrown up by their fallible brain must be true regardless of the physical world, and disregarding evidence to the contrary. In that, they are not alone, but I think their example performs a valuable service. Like the eastern Canadian example of a flat earth society argued, we should run our own experiments instead of merely accepting what we are told. Unfortunately, humans are a herd animal steve-cutts-Are-You-Lost-In-The-World-Like-Merather than the independent thinkers that we need to be. Einstein didn’t come up with relativity to explain the world because he was under the misapprehension that Newton’s laws were wrong. He sought to answer a different question that the flat earther’s gods and websites would not have been able to address. Other scientists were rapidly trying to substantiate Einstein’s theory, and it has been found quite robust when explaining the forces of time and gravity in a flexible space. Overturning it could very will win a Nobel prize, although spoofing it by a silly website would gain nothing more than a just obscurity.

Any view, regardless of how fantastic, has followers, but before we don our Harry Potter glasses—because the book is true you know—let’s grab the kids and take them to the beach where we can watch boats slowly sink below the horizon. Then we can go home with paper and pen, or a 00000basketball, an orange, and a flashlight, and try to think of how that might happen. The kids will be the better for the experience, and rather accept information at face value and then not bother to test it, like the flat earthers, they will know enough to think through problems on their own.

Weena cannot be blamed for her attraction to the fire, but in these days of freely available matches and stoves, we need to think and test before we are covered in third degree intellectual burns.

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Serendipity and Other People’s Hard Work: Contributing to Intellectual Society

Many years ago, when I used to build computers from found parts, installing hard drives was much more of an ordeal. You needed to look up the serial number of the 00000hard drive in a database—if you were lucky enough to find one—in order to locate the information you needed to type into the computer bios.

This sounds hopelessly clumsy now, when all you need to do is plug in the part and the system will recognize—out of the thousands of possibilities—the one you have. It was worse than clumsy. If you didn’t have access to the database, there was no way you could get the correct size, as well as the right amount of cylinders, heads, and sectors. Luckily for me, and for many other people, on the early internet there was such a database. Someone had laboriously typed in all of the data or, if he or she were lucky enough to have access to the spreadsheet, imported the data into a webpage and then set up a search engine so you could find your hard drive. At the time I was struck by the sheer altruism of that act. Like the people who edit Wikipedia, the person responsible for that crucial database is a saint.

I was contemplating buying a car in Toronto a few years ago and found one that was a good price. It was a 00000Toyota Echo, which I knew little enough about, but it had a major snag. The water pump needed to be replaced in order for the car to go anywhere without a tow truck. I had replaced a few on a Honda before, but I didn’t know if the Echo was easier or not. I turned to the internet—as many of us are doing these days—and found a man who had done the hours of work involved to show how to loosen the engine mounts, lift the engine, and get to the housing which would allow him to take out the water pump. What most amazed me was that he didn’t need to replace his when he made the video. He did that entirely for the edification of others.

There are now many YouTubers running channels devoted to one obsession or another, and many of them are managing to make money off their page through advertising and the sale of merchandise. Out of those there are also many thousands who do not earn a dime off their hard work, as they, in relative obscurity, contribute to the largest archive of human effort in history.

Today, I was impressed by another instance of this altruistic contribution. I was working on a science fiction novel about a colonist on Mars and needed the formula for finding out the period of spin on two objects separated 00000by a kilometre of cable and needing a simulated gravity of .5 g. I found a page which had a JavaScript calculator built, it seemed, for that exact purpose. Although it was ostensibly meant to calculate such spinning objects and the resultant centrifugal gravity for space stations, and wasn’t meant for a science fictional voyage at .5 g, but the tool allowed modification of any of the four values. I could specify the gravity I needed, and then how much cable, and the script would find out the angular velocity and tangential velocity.

When I was searching I found another similar page where someone takes on the sometimes frustrating task of educating people who are looking for answers and cannot be bothered to teach themselves. When one of the self-appointed instructors received a question which showed the person hadn’t thought about it very carefully, or perhaps did not have the education to understand an answer, the person who maintained the site was polite, thoughtful, thorough, explicit, and accurate.

 Question – I am reading about space colonies and I saw some pictures of what it would be like inside 00000a cylinder shaped space station. There is land all around the inside, so if you were standing on land in it and looked up, you would be looking down on the people above you. How would the gravity work then and wouldn’t the gravity of the people above you pull you “up?”


Answer – Lynn: As stated above, the method proposed for creating artificial gravity on a space station is to use a rotating system (like a rotating cylinder, torus, or sphere). Technically, rotation produces the same effect as gravity because it produces a force (called the centrifugal force) just like gravity produces a force. By adjusting certain parameters of a space station such as the radius and rotation rate, you can create a force on the outside walls that equals the force of gravity.

This is sort of like the amusement park ride where you get in a big cylinder with a lot of people and line up against the 00000walls. Then they spin the cylinder, producing a force that makes you feel pressed up against the sides. Everyone becomes glued to the walls of the chamber, and then they drop the floor out. No one falls to the ground because they are 00000being held to the edges by a force due to rotation. Another example would be swinging a bucket of water around over your head. The water doesn’t fall out if you spin the bucket around fast enough.

In a rotating space station, people will be “stuck” 00000to the outside too, but with a force equal to that of gravity so they will be able to walk around on the edges. The force will be the same all around the outside of the rotating cylinder, so depending on the design it could look like people are living on the ceiling!

The gravity of people around you will not make any noticeable difference. It is true that all objects which have mass exert a gravitational pull on other objects, but unless the mass is very large (like the earth) it has little effect. The people on the space station will not change the artificial gravity on the space station just like they do not effect [sic] the gravity while they are on Earth.

Even as there are people with 00000guns trying to tear down the huge edifice that is human culture, I take comfort in the fact that there are many million others who are building it, contributing by laying one brick at a time.

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Toys for Big Boys: Manboys and Manplay

When a local motorcycle and skidoo shop adopted the name “Toys for Big Boys” I would have thought it would mean death for their business. I would have guessed that the 000003overgrown baby that is the man who loves to play with trucks and all-terrain vehicles would have felt called out, insulted by this attack on his maturity. I was wrong.

Instead, those same men embraced the descriptor, happily trundling off to the store to buy ever more costly items, all the while 000000000110comfortable with the term, and apparently the idea, that they were immature manboys who were playing while others were working.000003

For me, that did not so much explain those men as it forced them into the open, like overturning a rock and being surprised by the insects blinking in the sun. I knew the type, and I have always had several friends who enjoyed playing even though as they grew older that became less defensible, at least for me. I never really understood either part of the phenomena. I don’t know why a man feels the urge to get in a buggy to drive too fast over a hill, or use a front end loader to spin their equally immature manboy friends around in circles, or shoot big guns, or run 000003remote toy cars around the neighbourhood, or tear through the woods on ATVs, or drive monster trucks—the list is as infinite as the toy store can supply.

Many times there are children 0000022at home that would love to play as well, but for many of these men, that is women’s business: the playing with children, while the playing with other men, that is for real men? Some will use the children as a rationale for the purchase of the toy, and others will include the child in their childish play, but for most of them, their play is meant to please their own childish minds and no one else. Not surprisingly, narcissism is a big part of the driving force for the manboy. He wants to remain a child, in that he doesn’t want to feel responsible for anybody or to anything, and just wants to play in the sun all day. He is not worried that his play must be 000020compensated for by someone else, by the wife who takes care of the kids, or has extra work to do when he comes home dirty, or that the children are losing part of the household income. Instead, like a child, he throws petulant fits if he can’t play with his toys, or if someone else wants to share them.

The other part of the phenomena is equally peculiar. The manboy has no shame that he wants to play like a child. In fact, he is proud that he only thinks of entertaining himself playing with toys. Oddly, he can often be induced to violence if you threaten his manhood by suggesting that he would be better to take some responsibility for his own life, the lives of his family, and his society, than tearing through a bog with a huge truck. He feels—and this is related to his narcissism—that he has every right to squander the household income on expensive toys for himself, that he has every right to play with his other manboy friends on the weekend instead of using that time to spend with his wife or children, or, god forbid, doing 00003320something more productive that might benefit society or others.

This shame cannot even be induced artificially. If you suggest to the manboy that he should spend less of the household money on himself, or that the toys bought should be those that a child would enjoy as well, he becomes defensive and outraged. He feels he has a right, by virtue of working all week, to not have to work on the weekend. This is a perfectly legitimate feeling, and I think we all share it, but he neglects to consider who else cannot play because he is playing. If he leaves his children behind so he can play cars with his 00000buddies, or swing from ropes with his friends, then someone else has to work more in order to allow that. His playtime is only for himself and he doesn’t understand why that’s a problem. That lack of understanding, or the will to misunderstand, is the principal problem.

Some manboys cut right to the chase and insist on spending their leisure time in diapers pretending to be a baby. Although this reads like a psychological problem of some sort to broader society, and to the psychologist, to the manbaby himself this relieves him of responsibilities just as he relieves himself in his drawers. He is allowed, in the privacy of his own home, to coo and drool and throw temper tantrums, and although this attitude spelled out in physical form might look especially unappealing, it will also seem strangely familiar to those who have dealt with the manboy who likes to play instead of work. Of course, the manbaby, like the manboy playing with toys, is not content to have this be a private affair, and usually will try to involve others with his play. He will sometimes hire others—it’s almost always adult women who bear the responsibility for the manboys—to care for him while he pretends to be a baby. He asks her to tolerate his tantrums, feed him milk from a bottle and, if he pays her enough, perhaps even change him. He never pauses to consider what he is asking of another, or to consider her feelings, but instead thinks that his feelings, his wishes, and desires are more important than another’s.

Behind all of this playtime for adult babies is the larger question of what a person should be doing with their life. If, as the leisure lifestyle advertisements argue, we should be000020 filling our spare time tending to our own amusement, then the manboy is on the right track. If not, and we should be tending to the responsibilities of our own life, our family, our community, and more broadly the world around us, then the manboy is a frivolous, selfish twit.

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 he has his protagonist Montag ask his wife if the world is starving while they play: “Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumours; the world is starving, but we’re well-fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?”

When I taught Fahrenheit 451 right after the spring break and many of my students had spent their break skiing down hills or lying on tropical beaches being served by the poor. 0000Because of the contrast Bradbury is asking us to imagine, that line struck me with a force I’d never before noticed. We know that people are suffering in the world. Is Montag’s moral condemnation true? That we are playing while they are starving? Do we have so little notion of our responsibilities that we think it is fine that we bungee jump our way to debt and negligence on someone else’s dime?

The opposite of playing

According to the many men in our society who feel entirely justified entering the Toys for Big Boys shop to spend a third of their household income in order to fitter away their time and most useful years, the answer is yes. And their actions bear out their statements. They do not care about anyone else in the world or what a person should spend their time doing. It never occurs to them that there are other ways of being,000003 in which they occupy themselves tutoring their children so that they become stronger students, join with their friends to build a house for a family in need, visit their aging parents, take out the trash and fix the garage door, or in some way make a contribution to society. As far as the manboys are concerned, their play alone justifies their existence, and that attitude, even more than their manplay, shows their lack of maturity.

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The Winter Solstice and Trying to Explain the Movement of the Sun

Many years ago I found myself trying to explain the movement of the sun during the winter to a class in Victoria, British Columbia, and ever since I have been struck by how cultural knowledge can be allowed or disallowed by geography. If you try to explain snow, for instance, to someone from the Cook Islands 00000in the central South Pacific—as I did when I was teaching there—you receive blank stares. My students understood the notion of frost and ice, for some islanders had freezers for the preservation of fish, but when I tried to describe how my entire country00000 sits beneath a blanket of such a substance, they agreed just to be polite.

When I tried to imagine the Atacama Desert before I went there this past summer, I was in a similar situation. I never imagined that the desert would be so completely dead. I was surprised that I could stand amongst the rocks and sand and not see a single living thing. Not a bug or weed or fly managed to live in such a desiccated place, although I expected that nowhere on the planet would be that barren.

Nearly thirty years ago I took a course in Icelandic literature at the University of Victoria, I was on the other end of that strange ignorance born from a lack of personal experience. I am from eastern Canada, and was lucky enough to grow up in a rural area where I had the four seasons explained to me in terms of the movement of the sun. Victoria has a monsoon climate, which means there are two seasons, summer, in which it rarely rains and is sunny nearly every day, and monsoon winter, in which it rarely is cold enough to snow but rains nearly every day.

People living in a monsoon climate know little about the movement of the sun in the winter, and that is why, when the question arose in class I had difficulty telling my instructor and fellow students what a line in the text meant. The line from the Vinland Sagas we were studying made reference to the “sun marching around the corner of the house” and the professor confessed that he had never understood the meaning of that line. He knew the line was referring to the passage of time, 00000but it made no sense to him that the sun’s movement could be used in this context. I tried to explain it from my seat, but when that made no sense to anyone in the class, I was allowed to go to the board and try my hand at drawing the movement of the sun.

In the northern climates, the earth’s tilt along its year-long orbit is angled in such a way that the sun does not climb from the due east and drop in the due west as it does in the tropics, but rather appears to cut across the corner of the sky. At times during the winter, the sun in the very far north merely peeks above the horizon, travels along it briefly, and then dips below again. That means, as far as the view from the ground in a stable place00000 like a house, the summer sun will rise due east, and then as the year grows later it will rise further and further in the south, until the winter solstice passes, and then it will begin its trek back to the location of its summer rising. In other words, to the careful observer, the sun appears to travel around the corner of the house.

This halting of the sun’s movement is happening as I write this tonight, for we are partway through the longest night of the year, December 21st. I know, intellectually if not intuitively, that the sun will be a little stronger tomorrow, and will rise slightly higher in the sky each subsequent day until nights of minus seventeen, like now, are a thing of the past.

All those years ago, I stood at the board in that classroom, and even though I did not have the pedagogical tools at my disposal that I have now that I have been teaching for twenty years, I tried my best to explain to them how the sun might appear to travel, at least when it is described poetically. The professor was patient, and tried to understand me, and the students were by turns attentive and dismissive, depending on their temper, but none of them could make out what I was claiming. In fact, and I could see this by their faces, many thought I was spouting pure balderdash.

Finally, the professor feigned to understand, just to get me to return to my seat, and left me to puzzle over why something that should be so simple, something to me that was so obvious, should be so difficult to explain or understand. It was a few days before I realized that I had been lucky to grow up in a rural area where the sun’s rising throughout the year was noticed and remarked upon. I rose early for school, and was able to see the movement of the sun, as day by day, it rose farther and farther to the south before the winter solstice and then farther east high_low_sunin the spring. Finally in summer, I remember the sun setting in a huge golden ball right in the middle of the north south running road.

For those of my fellow students, as well as my professor, who had grown up in Victoria, where the leaden clouds are parted for perhaps three times the entire winter, they would have had no such experience to draw upon. For them, the sun was sighted but rarely and was more or less in the same place in the sky. If I had been their astronomy professor explaining how the tilt of the earth affects the angle and location of the rising sun they would no doubt have made more effort, but since I was merely the student from the back of the class who took it upon himself to interpret a line from the Vinland Sagas, and used such an arcane notion of the movement of the sun, they could not credit it.

I’ve thought since that there was likely no way that I could have described such a difficult matter to people for whom it seemed to be patent nonsense. They had never seen the sun moving around like I described, and had put little thought into what the axial tilt of the Earth might mean. Therefore, 0000I was explaining something arcane by reference to something impossible. I was like a man explaining how the ghost he had seen was related to religious mythology. My fellow students might have tested my statement by research, but without the visceral experience, they would have difficulty even knowing which thread to follow.

The acknowledgement of geographical limitations on a student’s ability to learn is an important aspect of a general pedagogical approach. Northern lights can be

The aurora of February 9, 2014 seen from Churchill, Manitoba at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in a view looking northwest from the main building over the trees, with the 10-22mm lens. This is a 10-second exposure at f/4 and ISO 800 with the Canon 60Da. Moonlight lights the landscape. Cassiopeia is at upper left. (Alan Dyer/VWPics/Redux)

The aurora of February 9, 2014 seen from Churchill, Manitoba at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Moonlight lights the landscape. Cassiopeia is at upper left. (Alan Dyer/VWPics/Redux)

described to someone from the topics, but it might be better to use a video, and likewise for the tides to someone from a landlocked country. I have taught texts about the ocean in Winnipeg many times, but each time I make sure to describe what the tides are like on the ocean to the observer on the ground, 00000and by using the large lakes north of the city, the action of waves. As instructors, we need to ensure that we put some thought into the basis of understanding that our students might have, whether that is due to their cultural background, or the influence of geography.

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The Best line from a Student Paper

Although I have read many great student sentences over the years, probably the most memorable one is from my student’s essay when I was teaching in the United States. One of my students was writing about Frederick Douglass, the famous former slave, orator, and abolitionist, but the grammar of their essay turned against them and they ended up saying something very different from what they likely intended.

Although I have since—after many thousands of pages of marking—forgotten the paper itself, I remember the sentence: “Not only was Frederick Douglass a slave, but he had to work for long hours for low pay and frequent beatings.” They were right about some of their assertions. Frederick Douglass (born February 1818 – February 20, 1895) had been a slave in Maryland before he escaped to become the famous agitator for both black and women’s rights. Also, Douglass was frequently beaten; the student was right about that as well. As far as low pay, it is true that “low” 00000does not begin to describe how poor was the remuneration for slave work.

It is worth considering the sentence more carefully, however. Looking it over for more than its mistakes, it can be found to raise interesting albeit problematic questions. The beginning, “not only” makes the first clause subordinate, and implies that whatever follows will either build upon or supersede the initial statement: “Frederick Douglass a slave.” The reader is thus prepared for some other pieces of information related to his slavery but also possibly other portions of his life that inform his slavery or slavery in general.

The information the reader receives is not entirely expected. The notion of the student, 00000who—and perhaps this speaks rather highly of their moral sense if not their understanding of slavery—believes that slavery is a paying position, is likely due to modern idiomatic usage of the term. People who have to work for long hours, frequently complain, “I worked like a slave all day,” and when they mention mistreatment, they say, half tongue-in-cheek, “what am I, a slave?” Thus the student, who likely works for “slave 000010wages,” or minimum wage, has probably heard the expression applied to work like their own. As well, they may well find it impossible to imagine someone being forced to work for nothing, although the American Japanese internment camps, as well as the work camps of the Nazis, are there to disabuse them of the notion.

In modern times,0000110 this type of work is done by people with intellectual disabilities, who are sometimes hired for an extremely low government-paid stipend, although many of them may be more than capable than doing a day’s work. In that case they are merely being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers (surely a tautology) 000020who are abusing a system set up for people whose work skills do not add value in the traditional sense. Other forms of free labour that are common in society would be the demand for long unpaid, training periods for new workers, and the volunteer experience people are expected to use to pad their resume.

It is to the student’s credit that they found working for nothing hard to imagine, although it speaks volumes about how their education system failed them in terms of describing a major component of their own history. Note as well that his hours were “long,” which indicates the student is further noting the unfairness of the system.

Where the grammar gets increasingly strange is when the student considers the other part of Douglass’ pay. He works for “low pay” and “frequent beatings.” Although the use of the and is likely the an inadvertent result of the student’s prose getting away from them, the he or she has implied that Douglass was partly paid in beatings. Perhaps that was meant to make up 0000for the lowness of the pay, but whatever the result, it begs the question of whether he would have been willing to take more pay and less beatings, or whether the frequency of the beatings is meant to be a positive aspect of his pay system. He was paid regularly and beat frequently, which perhaps in the mind of the student is better than being paid on no set schedule and being constantly surprised by sudden and unplanned beatings.

The second and principal clause is where the sentence gets the strangest, but because of that it encourages the reader to forget that it is meant to supplement the statement made in the initial clause. “Not only” was he a slave, Douglass also had to be a slave. The statement implies that the student has a more uncertain notion of slavery than the reader might initially suppose. Although there are many more components to slavery, like denial to due process under the law, inability to own property, denial to medical care, inability to travel without permission, and say, “being owned,” the main idea that would come into the reader’s mind upon reading about Douglass being a slave was that he would be mistreated and likely had to work. The student reads this as somehow exacerbating Douglass’ slave status.

In a way, the student’s naiveté about slavery, and the mistreatment of his or her fellow citizens, or the people who would become his or her fellow citizens after emancipation, is endearing. They find the horror of the institution of slavery so impossible to understand that they cannot imagine even its more basic features, no pay for work and beatings, were an established part of the system of inequality. In terms of their sentence, however, they let the comma fool them into thinking that the two parts of the sentence were independent, instead of the reality of their grammar, that they were intimately connected and commented on one another. Also, they were seemingly unaware that the “and” meant they were listing two items which were equal under the umbrella that they had chosen to construct. The “long hours” Douglass had to work, once “low pay” entered the agreement and was followed by an “and,” meant that both items in the list were included in the pay.

This exercise is meant to be about more than denigrating student writing. The internet is rife with statements about students’ essays, and although most of them appear to be created on the spot by writers experienced in denigrating the abilities of others, I am more interested the student’s words got away from them, and thus were able to enjoy a life of their own frolicking on the grass of meaningless and illogic. This can happen to any of us, those who write for a living and are apparently aware of how a collection of words together in a string might mean something more or less than we intend.

More recently, online grammar 00000guardians seem to easily find any misuse of “their” and “they’re” riveting and the cause for hilarity, and they are cheered on by those for whom schadenfreude is a delight. But to engage in such fish-in-a-barrel target practice does not excuse us from the slippery world of the signifier’s loose relationship with the signified. Those who delight in the low hanging fruit of misspellings and the confusing of adjectives with nouns, lose track of the slightly more subtle problems that can arise in our sentences and entirely contravene what we mean to say.

This problem of expression is one that we all share, and first year students are no exception. As if the language is actively conspiring against us, words change their meaning, idiomatic utterances spring to life only to seem dated and trite a few years later, and new coinages astound with their obtuseness or utility. Even if we insist on reading grammar as no more than the rules that define how words form a chain of meaning, that does not mean the words will not conspire against us and link themselves to other thoughts almost of their own accord.

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